This is the Introduction in an occasional series about the Accidental Foodie in Kauai.
Lots of things happen by chance. Chance food, chance houses, chance islands. Sometimes it all comes together. Seven months ago my parents brought up the idea of getting the family together in Kauai; They have been married for forty years and they wanted to celebrate in a place that held many fond memories for all of us. Additionally I had promised my wife (La Bonne Femme) when we married that I would take her to Hawaii within five years, since we have been married for six years, the time was ripe. My mom found a house that fit the bill: North side, off the beaten path, near her favorite beach. The internet description of the house said it also included citrus trees and other tropical fruits for the picking. How quaint, maybe we could have an orange for breakfast one morning. Nevertheless we began to plan what we would cook as a family once we reached the Garden Isle.
“The Garden Isle” is Kauai’s nickname, because it is the most green most lush of the major Hawaiian islands. It claims the wettest spot on Earth, Mount Wai'ale'ale, (avg annual rainfall 460 inches), and Hawaii’s only navigable river, the Wailua. The Island has a rich agricultural history, starting over a thousand years ago with the introduction of pigs and bananas from the East, to today where south side of the island is home to the nation’s largest coffee plantation.
But my parents, some twenty years ago, didn’t choose to come the Kauai because they were foodie agri-tourists (us kids never had to say “do we have to take a tour of the jam factory?”). They came because it was a quiet place where you could slip off the trodden hula, ukulele, lei trail, and land in a hidden patch of sand and have it all to yourself. It still is.
Stepping off the jet in a clouded haze was not part of my plan. Sun and 81 degrees was the weather in Lihue but after ten hours in flight, my eyes were mostly cloudy. Youth on the other hand knows no time zone, the boys were jumping to go, if only they could drive.
With the boys strapped into an open top jeep (Bonne femme driving), I piloted the mini van with Grandma on shotgun. The twenty-five mile drive from Lihue to Kiluaea was like rolling into town for a high school reunion. I felt a certain power from being somewhere I had been many times many years before, yet I hardly recognized anything. Every landmark I looked for was still there, but the matching photos in my mind were fuzzy and faded. However, the smell remembered everything: A clean crisp floral scent pierced everything as soon as we cleared the jet way. Driving along the wind would carry it and mix it with salt air, then mix it with rotting fruit of a passing mango tree, and then, as we dipped into valleys, it would give way to a dense humid decay of the rain forest. I like the rain forest smell the most, some time ago I decided that it is the smell of the color green. Every place has a unique smell undetected by its residents. When I got back to Chicago, I was able to identify its smell as burnt coffee on hot steel; I was kinda depressed.
Turning into the pebble drive at Makai Farms it was immediately plain that the reality of the house far outstretched its internet image. On the left one neighbor had a large plot of vegetables going for market, beyond that a pineapple plat. On the right, a gentleman’s farm with a horse corral. We drove through a dip and around a bend, and found the house. It was bordered by a stand of banana trees on the right and a yard full of citrus on the left. Behind the citrus were two forty foot avocado trees loaded with football sized fruit. They were backed up by several sixty foot Balsa trees and, of course, there were several coconut palms lining the drive. We got out and looked around the yard, under the trees laid fruit rotting (as nature intended): Grapefruit, Tangerines, and oranges. We had work to do, what I had imagined as a kitschy come-on of a single small orange tree, turned out to be a sustaining grove that needed to be worked.
We met the caretaker, Manfred, who took us through the house. It looked of a house where a family lived, good solid furnishing, designed to accommodate when friends were visiting. And then we got to the kitchen. After many years of improvising in rental kitchens with the ecko can-openers and worn out Oxo peelers it was refreshing to see a well equipped kitchen. Manfred showed us the recycling bins and asked us if we composted (“I got my pants on don’t I” I thought). The compost pile was in the banana tree stand. Once we have the place to ourselves I scrutinized the kitchen: Beyond the requisite blender, I found a six burner cook top, wall oven, a Cuisinart, and (the Holy Grail) a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. This is gonna be good.